Treading carefully in Kenya

1995_Kenya-6I stood in a cloud of dust, staring at the backs of my fellow biologists as their Land Rover pulled away. Five hours of me alone counting Augur buzzards, a Kenyan hawk, seemed like a long time. But then again, what could go wrong? According to a jovial guard at the gate, Cape buffalo were the only real threat in Hell’s Gate National Park and there were no signs of buffalo. He told me as long as I kept a safe distance and always had a good climbing tree within running distance, I should have no troubles.

I surveyed the surrounding trees and my heart sank – all the branches were just beyond my reach. “Nothing an adrenaline rush couldn’t fix”, I comforted myself as I scanned the horizon one more time. There really were no signs of buffalo. Tentatively, I shifted my eyes to the sky, looking for buzzards to count.

My census began with more buffalo checks than buzzard counting. As time wore on though, and my high jump skills remained untested, I slipped into the type of stupor one can only really achieve after spending too much time counting birds gliding in circles. The minutes ticked away and it wasn’t until I was satisfied with my buzzard estimate for that area that I thought to scan for buffalos again. There didn’t appear to be any imminent danger, but I identified a potential escape tree just in case. Satisfied, I hoisted my telescope to my shoulder and lifted my leg to relocate. My foot paused in mid-air as an uneasy sensation crept through my body. Something wasn’t quite right.

I verified that the horizon was still clear of buffalo, and then, slowly, I eased my eyes downward. To my horror, I was about to plant my foot on a dark, scale-adorned head about the size of my fist. It was a solid head with an evil-looking brow. The sight of it invoked terror in every cell of my body. Snakes had always been my worst fear. Even pinky-sized garter snakes sent me into seizures and this was no harmless, little snake. I mentally re-scanned pictures from reptile identification guides. Black cobra flashed across my brain in bold, red lettering, a skull and crossbones stamped squarely on top.

Warily, I tilted my head ever so slightly to get a better view of my unintended companion. The snake’s head was raised above the ground and it swayed from side to side while testing the air between my foot and the dirt with its forked tongue. My heart skipped. Was this thing hunting?! The thought was discomforting, but uneasiness from that paled in comparison to what my eyes were seeing. I was downright appalled to realize that this head was attached to a nine-foot long snake with a mid-section thicker than my arm! Somehow having an escape tree in sight no longer gave me a sense of security.

Involuntarily my brain began calculating: How long before my pick-up? How many kilometers to the guard station? How far to the nearest hospital? How long before a helicopter could arrive and get me to that hospital? How much time before muscular atrophy sets in after a cobra bite? Does cobra venom affect the nervous system? The cardio-vascular system, maybe? Aaaaaahhhhh!!!! Images of my companions shaking their heads forlornly at the sight of my profile distending the stomach of this giant serpent kept recurring in my mind. My already rubbery legs weakened further. I needed to do something fast lest my quivering foot collapse to make this horrid image a reality.

I finally forced myself to take a breath and the rush of air gave me a moment of clarity. I wasn’t on the menu! Whether this serpent was hunting or not, he had clearly known I was there before I’d been aware of his presence. In fact, even if he was hunting, he’d rejected me; which among life’s many rejections was not a bad thing. His body was straight behind me, curving into a tight semi-circle around where my foot had been planted and it seemed to me that the reason his head was under my foot now was that he’d taken a detour to circumvent me like a tree. He was adjusting his path only long enough to avoid me before continuing on his previous trajectory. I was safe. Or was I? Most trees don’t move. If I was being viewed as vegetation, the slightest movement on my part could easily startle my formidable company and give reason to strike. Renewed panic flooded over me.

Fear alone kept me motionless, but as the snake resumed its journey, I felt woozier than ever. Watching this sleek body glide beneath my foot turned my paralysis into jitters. Every muscle in my body debated between maintaining the tree charade and bolting for it. I trembled all over. A particularly violent foot spasm caused the snake to pause. I really had to do something.

Once the animal resumed its slither, I took a deep breath and held it. As discreetly as I could manage, I shifted my foot down to one side of the moving body. I let my breath out. I was now stable, but watching this dangerous beast progress between my legs didn’t improve my jitters. My moment of clarity had long since passed and I felt an irresistible need to be on one side or the other of the snake. Having a large, venomous snake underneath me was simply unacceptable. I took another breath. With all the courage and calmness I had left, I lifted my other foot across the body, placed it gently next to my planted foot and obeyed my instinct to freeze.

I froze. And I froze. And I stayed frozen.

Long after the reptile had disappeared, I stood motionless, hands clasped to my chest while my heart pounded in my throat. I stared at the disturbed grasses where the serpent had left the road. Did I really have to move? Couldn’t I just wait and beg for a ride some four hours later when my colleagues returned? No. This spot was drenched in horrific memories. It would be the longest, most miserable four hours of my life. I had to move. Yet I was terrified of moving. How could I honestly keep track of buffalo on the horizon, count new buzzards, and scan every tuft of grass in case it concealed a giant black cobra?!

Somehow I willed my limbs to thaw. I jumped at the slightest quiver of vegetation. I eyed every log suspiciously. I plotted long lines of escape trees before darting to the next outpost of apparent safety. At long last, I bolted into the shelter of the guardhouse.

The same jovial guard beamed at me, “You found good trees, huh?”

Shakily, I told him how trees hadn’t been necessary. I hadn’t seen a single buffalo, but there was this huge, black snake….

He looked at me incredulously. “You saw the giant, black cobra? We have heard that this snake exists, but none of the guards have ever seen it. I myself have been looking for ten years! You are very lucky.”

LUCKY?! I felt lucky all right, but not for the reason he seemed to be thinking!

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